Thai health workers prepare to disinfect a shrimp market earlier this week (Image: EPA/Narong Sangnak)

Australia’s management of the coronavirus pandemic is among the best in the world, a new report from the Lowy Institute has found.

The study, which examines the influence of factors including geography, systems of government, economic systems and population size on a country’s handling of the pandemic lists Australia as the eighth-best performer globally, with New Zealand coming in at number one. The United States, meanwhile is fifth last, with Brazil at the bottom. 

But the top 10 indicates that good pandemic management can cut across political systems, income levels and beneficial geography.

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Vietnam, a dictatorship with nearly 100 million people and a GDP per capita a fraction of Australia’s comes in at second. Thailand, Rwanda and Sri Lanka are in the top 10 — countries whose pandemic success stories rarely get much of a mention here in Australia.

So, what exactly does the report tell us about who succeeds?

Democracy works, with exceptions

According to the report, being a democracy helps, but only just.

Countries with authoritarian regimes and hybrid regimes did slightly worse at suppressing the virus.

“We can safely dispel some of the narratives that have cropped up in the past year about the inherent superiority of authoritarian regimes,” co-author Hervé Lemahieu told Crikey.

Of the top 10 countries, only Vietnam and Rwanda are not democracies.

A big reason for this, Lemahieu says, is while authoritarian regimes started off able to quickly mobilise resources and shut things down, democracies were more able to learn from mistakes and respond to changing conditions. 

The report used the Economist Intelligence Unit’s 2019 democracy index to categorise countries’ political systems. Its broader methodology involved tracking a number of indicators, including confirmed cases, deaths, testing rates and cases per million in 98 countries over a 36-week period.

Of course, there are also important caveats to the democratic success narrative. The first, as the report concedes, is the disastrous performance of the United States and United Kingdom: wealthy first world democracies where incompetent leadership has led to thousands of deaths and economic devastation.

Then there’s China, an authoritarian country which suppressed the virus very effectively, but doesn’t feature in the institute’s analysis because of a lack of publicly available testing data. But Lemahieu says even if China was included, it probably wouldn’t have tipped the balance away from democracy.

“With a sampling of 100 countries, inclusion or exclusion of China wouldn’t have made much difference,” he said.

Size does matter

Small countries also had it better — there was a strong structural correlation between successful pandemic management and having a population of fewer than 10 million people. 

Nine of the top 15 countries have under 10 million people.

The report notes that at the start of the pandemic, there was little clearly divergence between experiences. But as time wore on, smaller countries started clearly outperforming their larger counterparts, as they could be more agile in their responses. 

The Americas fail

Once again, little surprise that the Asia-Pacific has had the most success in combating the virus. Australia, Vietnam, Thailand, Taiwan and Sri Lanka are all in the top 10. 

Meanwhile, the report shows the Americas have handled the pandemic worse than any other region. Four of the five worst performing countries — the US, Colombia, Mexico and Brazil are in that region.

Europe, meanwhile had a mixed experience — in the early days, it was the worst-affected corner of the world, before dramatically improving its performance around mid-2020, a time when the average European experience was better than in Asia. Then, many governments took their feet off the gas, leading to disastrous second waves in parts of Western Europe. But smaller Baltic states like Latvia and Estonia remained strong performers all the way through.

Lemahieu says these regional discrepancies point to the lack of a “singular western experience” in how the pandemic has played out.

It’s not conceivable to think of this as a clash of civilisation, or in terms of cultural essentialist type arguments,” he says.

And that’s a key point borne out by the report. Western, developed countries did not outperform poorer counterparts. Nations in Sub-Saharan Africa have utterly shamed the global north with their competent pandemic management.

A key reason for this, according to Lemahieu, is that some of the most effective measures, like stay-at-home measures, border closures and lockdowns are relatively low-tech. But he warns that global wealth inequality could become the defining aspect of the pandemic’s next chapter.

“Unfortunately, given the hoarding, the unequal distribution, the fact that rich countries have access to vaccines, we can expect them to gain a decisive upper hand, while the developing world is left behind,” he said.

“That’s a collective global failure.”

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Crikey is an independent Australian-owned and run outfit. It doesn’t enjoy the vast resources of the country’s main media organisations. We take seriously our responsibility to bear witness.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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